RODIN, Auguste
(b. 1840, Paris, d. 1917, Meudon)

The Gates of Hell

1880-90 (cast 1926-28)
Bronze, 635 x 400 x 85 cm
Musée Rodin, Paris

In 1880, Rodin was commissioned for a bronze door to a building still in the planning stage, designed to house a museum of decorative arts. France's President Jules Ferry signed the order commissioning Rodin to produce a model of a "bas-relief depicting Dante's Divine Comedy." The very nature of the commission was of capital importance to the sculptor: like equestrian statues, monumental doors were considered prestigious projects that could be awarded only to well-known artists. One of the uncontested models for such doors were those done by Ghiberti for the baptistery in Florence, which Michelangelo dubbed the Gates of Paradise. Rodin, during his trip to Italy in 1875, spent a long time admiring the bronze masterpiece.

The influence of Ghiberti on Rodin was obvious when he sketched his early ideas for The Gates of Hell. They reflect the compartmentalised structure of the Florentine panels, each compartment depicting a specific incident. The subdivision of Dante's poem into cantos made such division easy. Nevertheless, Rodin soon abandoned this initial idea in favour of a single overall panel on each of the double doors, providing scope for an astounding fall of the damned from top to bottom, thus echoing Dante's text.

While preparing for this work, Rodin spent nearly a year on a series of sketches. In late 1884, casts of various parts of The Gates of Hell were assembled. But Rodin continually altered the work, and things dragged on - construction of the new museum of decorative arts was postponed indefinitely and Rodin began to work on other commissioned projects. Independent works based on the Gates were steadily making their way in the world, as witnessed for example The Kiss in 1888, and The Thinker in 1889.

Years went by, and the Gates steadily lost their utilitarian goal, becoming an autonomous artwork independent of practical consideration. It was in 1900 that a plaster cast of The Gates of Hell was first exhibited in public. It was unnoticed by the public and Rodin seemed to have abandoned any idea of finishing his work.

At Rodin's death, the first curator of the Musée Rodin had a complete model of the Gates assembled from the original molds. The first bronze cast was executed in 1926-28. Today there are seven casts of the Gates of Hell throughout the world, made between 1926 and 1997: Paris, Philadelphia, Tokyo, Zurich, Stanford, Shizuoka, and Seoul.